One of the most important bands at the
turn of the decade into 1980 was The Specials. A multi racial band and
very charged lyrics saw them identify with a generation. And in Ghost
Town, they made one of the defining records of the 1980s. Here we have a
chat with guitarist Roddy Byers about The Specials and their reunion.
Roddy Byers on the Specials reunion tour 2009. Photo
c Joe Kerrigan/wwwroddyradiation.co.uk
Hello Roddy and welcome
to the Friars Aylesbury website.
Legend has it that your
first appearance at Friars, supporting the Clash in June 1978, was the
night you changed your name from The Coventry Automatics to The Specials.
Do you remember that?
Yes that was the first gig under our new
name. Another band had the same name and had recently been signed up to a
Why were there in
effect the two names of the band with The Specials and the Special AKA?
Yes confusing isn't it? I think Jerry
Dammers had wanted the Special A.K.A. but as it was a bit of a mouthful it
was shortened to the Specials.
But at different times in our careers it
reverted back to the Special A.K.A.
Looking back, how
defining was it that you set up the 2 Tone Label? I mean that in the
sense of it defined an era and pretty much defined a sound/movement in a
way that Motown did even if some of the bands left the label fairly soon
like The Beat.
Two Tone was Jerry Dammers' idea, most of
us were just pleased to get a recording contract but Jerry wanted a
movement and a label to put like minded bands on. I don't think the idea
was for the bands Jerry signed to stay but just to give them a "leg up"
so too speak.
I also loved the
initial home made feel of it all. I remember buying Gangsters in 1979 in a
white sleeve with the title having been inked on with a rubber stamp!
We took turns stamping the labels and
covers but I think Horace Panter our bass guitarist did most of them by
That was an impressive
roster on the label though – although you had an unusual clause in
allowing bands to leave after one single, only The Beat and Madness (I
think) took this route. Aside form yourselves, who were, in your opinion
the most significant band/artist on the label?
I didn't really have a say in who was
signed or I would have probably picked a rockabilly group or punk rock
band - which is probably why I didn't get a choice I suppose?
The Specials came
together as an anti-racism politically charged band – was this purely a
reaction to the time of Thatcher coming into power or you would have gone
down this route regardless? To explain that a bit more, I mean this was
around the time when Rock Against Racism and anti-fascism and then
anti-Thatcher sentiment was high.
Well being a mixed race group and Terry
being of Jewish descent we thought we had to make a stand against Fascist
groups like the National Front.
And most of us were working class and
disliked Thatcher and her Tory policies.
The Specials resonated
with so many people not only with the quality music, but lyrically, words
were not minced in the likes of Stupid Marriage and Too Much Too Young –
people were reacting to you because of the lyrics more than anything else
as there a lot of messages there.
Our songs sadly still apply today!
There are are still right wing fascist groups - BNP and the EDL. -
"Doesn't Make It Alright" Under age mothers - "Too Much
Young" Privilege in education - "Rat Race", Mindless violence on the
streets - "Concrete Jungle"
Concrete Jungle is one
of your songs from before the Specials, you must have been pleased to record that with the band and also becoming one of the principal
songwriters with great songs like Rat Race (a personal favourite)
Well it was hard trying to get my songs
chosen as Jerry was our leader and also our main song writer, but I was
pleased Rat Race, Concrete Jungle and Hey Little Rich Girl were recorded
by the band.
How do you feel the
Rude Boy image and punk energy and attitude worked together? There really
were very few bands like you. Other multi race bands of the time like UB40
and The Selecter in terms of attitude seemed very very behind you
irrespective of their social and political leanings. Did you see it that
way as they were not really competitors as such?
I was a punk rocker I suppose. When
I joined the band I wasn't very keen on wearing Tonic suits at all! But I
think my contribution helped make the Specials different to all the other
bands that played ska and rock steady.
Some of the late 70's ska movement were
political some weren't, but we were all anti racist and anti Thatcher's
I think we mostly got on band wise as we
toured together and shared the same tour buses, hotels etc.
THAT single, Ghost
Town, is one of the most celebrated records of the 1980s and practically
defines a generation. What reaction did you anticipate at the time? And
also the fact it is still relevant 30 years later?
I don't think we realised what an era
defining record Ghost Town was going to be. Apart from Jerry who said it
was going to be the biggest record ever!
After a couple of close
calls, you came back to Friars in 1980 for the birthday party gig, one of
Britain’s biggest bands selling out the gig in no time. That was an
interesting one, I remember Lynval Golding (and possibly a couple of
others) jumping in to the crowd and there seemed to be general mayhem! Do
you remember the gig?
Apparently. I've read we weren't too well
behaved at the 1980 gig... sorry - I think by then we were all a bit
tired and jaded.
I gather that The
Specials were asked to back Debbie Harry on The Tide Is High around 1980
but Mr Dammers vetoed the idea – why?
Well so the story goes, but maybe Jerry
didn't like the idea of his band becoming backing musicians to what Jerry
would class as pop artists.
Why did the Specials
stop in 1981 after a catalogue of hit singles and two successful albums?
Was there the inter band friction that has been suggested or the strain of
trying to break America<. But Ghost Town was a fine way to be remembered.
I wasn't happy with the situation and I
know a few others weren't. Jerry's guidance had got us guys where we were
but we all felt we could offer more in our own individual styles. The
constant touring and the very different personalities finally pulled us
After three of the band
went on to form Fun Boy Three, do you feel it was right to carry on
irrespective of having a massive hit with Free Nelson Mandela (and
bringing the man to most people’s consciousnesses for the first time)? And
bringing back the AKA nametag was presumably an attempt to say this is
something different to what you are.
Jerry wanted to change the world and he
has done to a point - good on him.
You came back to Friars
in 1982 with the Tearjerkers. I know you worked with several bands around
that time. How did you see your plans for the Tearjerkers and yourself
generally at the time? You were gigging a lot round Europe with the
Tearjerkers weren’t you?
The Tearjerkers did a U.K. tour
supporting Stiff Little Fingers which was great fun, and my new songs
which I've labelled "Skabilly" I continue to play up until the present
day with my new band the Skabilly Rebels.
There’s been various
Specials related projects since the original break up but what sowed the
seed to start the “proper” reunion process in 2008? Why then?
Lynval Golding, the Specials other
guitarist, had been trying for years to get the original band back
together, some of us did in 1994 in what was known as the Specials M.K.2
mainly touring in the U.S.A. In 2008 everybody agreed to try it again,
but Jerry Dammers had different plans for the band so the majority sadly
decided to tour without him.
It’s been quoted that the door has been left open for Jerry
to return to the fold but that would seem unlikely? It seems he decided
against taking part in the reunion rather than you leaving him behind?
I've no idea what plans are afoot for the
Specials but I doubt Jerry will be involved which is sad as the Specials
was his baby.
Best wishes Roddy and
Official Specials website
Official Roddy Radiation
This interview and its content are © 2012 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and
may not be used in whole or in part without permission.